Australia's Madeline Hills leads the senior women's race at the Oceania Cross Country Championships (Athletics Australia) © Copyright
Report North Maleny, Australia

Hills wins Oceania cross country title on a course made for hills

It was all hills at the Oceania Cross Country Championships at Maleny Golf Course on Saturday (25) and it was all Hills in the women’s title.

Madeline Hills was the class of the women’s field and she dominated in the expected manner. After sitting in with the pack in the early stages, the Rio 2016 Olympic dual finalist (5000m and steeplechase) simply ran away from her rivals to win the 10km race by almost 400 metres.

Andrew Buchanan made it back-to-back titles in the men’s race. With the race also incorporating the Australian national championships he became the first male to win twice in a row since Sydney 2000 Olympic 5000 finalist Mizan Mehari in 1998 and 1999. Before that it was Rob de Castella in 1978 and 1979 so it would be a good bet that we will not see it happen again until 2038.

There were also youth and junior Oceania titles decided on the day. New Zealand’s Murdoch McIntyre and Australia’s Nikita Moore won the U18 titles, Moore defeating Australian 800m Commonwealth Games representative Keely Small.

Haftu Strintzos and Ella Heeney took out the respective male and female championships in the U20 age group.

Maleny provides a challenging course

After the Commonwealth Games were held on the Gold Coast, the southern end of the south-east Queensland conurbation, the cross-country titles moved to the Sunshine Coast, at the northern end.

Maleny Golf Course sits in the hinterland and the drive up from the coast is distinctive for (at least) two reasons. First, the vegetation changes from coastal beaches and mangroves; and, two, it is all uphill into the beautiful Glass House Mountains.

The course offered to competitors – with loops of 1km, 2km and 3km – was universally uphill or down. Flat ground was nowhere to be found. Each of the longer laps finished with a long steep climb, followed by a steep descent, another long climb, another sweeping descent round the final turn and an uphill session. A tough test if you’re hitting a golf ball, an even tougher one if you’re running at the end of a 10km cross-country.

In front of a substantial crowd of several thousand, Hills set the tone from start to finish. For most of the short 1km lap and the first of the 3x3km, Hills was content to sit in a pack of five. When she went to the front, it was all over.

Increasing her lead with every stride, Hills crossed the line to take her first senior title in 37:32, 77 seconds ahead of Caitlin Adams with another 34 back to bronze medallist Lara Hamilton.

Hills won an Australian junior title and was twice placed in the top-20 of the U20 race at the IAAF World Cross Country championships. This was her first national title since and she said she would like to run her first senior titles next year in Arrhus, Denmark.

Hills also wants to go back to the steeplechase for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, the event in which she first broke through. She said the fact she had run the Commonwealth Games in April and there was no other championships this year had enabled her to put together a solid bloc of injury-free training.

After just missing the finals of both steeplechase and 5000m at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, Hills was a finalist in both in Rio. She has also run with distinction at 10,000m, but said she had come round to the view that the steeple was her best event.

Agreeing that “versatility could sometimes be a curse”, Hills said it have never been the intent to move away from the barriers.

Now the steeplechase beckoned “like a dangling carrot. My PB is still from the Olympic Games,” she said. “That’s not how it’s meant to work.”

Buchanan likewise had a comfortable margin of victory in the men’s race, though his 24 seconds paled alongside Hills’ 77-second cushion. His 32:15 and Hills’ 37:32 are testament to the difficulty of the course, which was well-grassed and in good condition.

While noone was game to take on the pace in the women’s race, Harry Summers bounced out to an early lead in the men’s. His aggression pulled Buchanan clear of other challengers.

“I thought it would be a bunch early,” said the winner. “I wanted to keep in contact with Harry, but not push him to go faster.”

Buchanan has a good range of track personal bests, but it is on the country that he has proved to be strongest. He won last year’s title from Ed Goddard and repeated this year ahead of Riley Cocks and Goddard. In his Victorian state title, he lost a close battle to the in-form Jack Rayner, who watched yesterday’s race after winning the national half-marathon title which was contested on the Sunshine Coast a week earlier.

Unlike most of his rivals, Buchanan has a regional training base in the Victorian city of Bendigo. “Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of the stronger groups,” he admitted, “but it works for me.”

It certainly does.

Len Johnson for the IAAF